Optimize cattle feed intake and efficiency with genetics

Feed represents up to 70% of the cost to maintain a cow-calf operation, which makes cattle feed intake one of the top costs and a priority in sustaining strong herd health.

Choosing your feed ration based on available ingredients is an obvious and major component to help maximize the efficiency of your operation. But one factor not often considered is beef genetics.

Selecting cattle based on genetics can help maximize the feed ration line item on your balance sheet and contribute to overall operation productivity. But like any other “moderately heritable” trait, it’s important to think about feed intake in the full context of all necessary genetic strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s a total package. You have to think about the genetic selection decisions you make, make sure your nutritional program is optimized and consider the herd health component, because if that’s out of whack, cattle don’t perform,” said University of Nebraska Beef Genetics Specialist Matt Spangler. “Feed intake and efficiency have heritability of around 40%, so there’s no question we can make genetic changes to improve these traits. The question becomes how to do that in a holistic approach, because there is a host of other traits that influence profitability.”

The basics of balancing expected progeny differences (EPDs)

Selecting genetics is a balancing act to maintain a healthy, productive herd. It’s a process that involves consideration of your herd makeup, environment and highest-value traits in the animals you raise. For example, a cow-calf producer should value different heritable traits than a cattle feeder based on the value propositions of each stage in animals’ lives.

"You have to think about the genetic selection decisions you make and make sure your nutritional program is optimized. — Matt Spangler, beef genetics specialist, University of Nebraska"

“Most commercial cow-calf producers are going to think about calving ease/difficulty first and foremost. A lot of people prioritize that over everything else,” Spangler said. “It really depends on your point of sale. If it’s calves at weaning, you’re paying attention to weaning weight. Beef, marbling, carcass weight and ribeye scores are important for feeders and processors. If you keep back replacement females, heifer pregnancy and stayability in the herd are important,” he said.

Spangler also said that when selecting your herd genetics, it’s important to account for the breeding system type (maternal trait, replacement female, terminal or all-purpose) and maintaining the necessary balance among all valuable heritable traits as it relates to your herd’s specific outcomes.

“Feed efficiency is different in a cow than a growing animal because the output isn’t growth. So we know that if we want to reduce feed intake in the cow herd, it’s putting selection emphasis on mature weight and lactation potential, which are energy sinks for maintenance,” Spangler said.

Specific EPDs and what they mean

Feed intake, calving ease and other EPDs are typically tracked in economic selection indexes at each breed association, including for Angus, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Limousin, Red Angus and Simmental cattle.

The American Angus Association (AAA), for example, breaks down EPDs into four categories. Each sire or bloodline has an accuracy for each EPD based on progeny numbers and records, with 1.0 indicating the highest possible reliability. They’re also ranked for dollar value, with the economic selection ($Value) figure indicating the expected financial performance of the animal’s progeny. The four EPD categories in the AAA EPD catalog are:

  • Production. This category includes EPDs important for cow-calf producers, including calving ease and weight, weaning weight, residual average daily gain (RADG) and dry matter intake (DMI).
  • Foot scores. This category comprises claw set (Claw) and foot angle (Angle) EPDs and indicates the durability of an animal’s feet and hooves, as well as its resulting mobility — key traits for grazing animals.
  • Maternal. This category includes traits that are also highly valuable to cow-calf producers, including heifer pregnancy (HP), mature weight (MW) and cow energy value ($EN).
  • Carcass. This category is of greater value to cattle feeders and beef processors, including carcass weight (CW), marbling (Marb), ribeye area (RE) and fat thickness (Fat).

These individual EPDs then contribute to a group of $Value indexes that show how the EPDs are expressed in relation to one another.

It’s at this level where you can see how a bloodline will perform for feed intake compared to other heritable traits. For the AAA, (with $ symbols corresponding to different phases of beef production, the lifecycle of cattle and accounting for the variables above) those indexes are:

  • Maternal weaned calf value ($M)
  • Weaned calf value ($W)
  • Feedlot value ($F)
  • Grid value ($G)
  • Beef value ($B)

“You don’t want to focus on only one trait since they all impact profitability. It’s like keeping a bunch of balls in the air and making sure you’re not dropping any of them. It can get complicated,” Spangler said.

For example, you can have cattle that eat very little, but if that means they don’t grow at all,. That’s where these breed associations’ economic selection indexes are so valuable. They can show you how much you should emphasize feed efficiency versus intake, growth and other feed-related traits in finding the EPD balance that’s the best for your herd.

Sticking to your plan when adjusting beef genetics and EPDs for feeding traits

If you are considering adjusting EPDs to solve problems in your existing herd — like lagging feed efficiency or calving rates — be prepared for the time it will take for your herd to show signs of improvement and stick to a long-term plan.

"It’s cheaper to make genetic changes over time than it is to just buy more feed."
“Sometimes, changes in feed EPDs are driven by cost of gains jumping through the roof, and you might identify that you need to get more efficient with your feed. The economics of ‘right now’ drive a lot of decisions,” Spangler said. “The problem is, if you’re thinking about introducing new genetics, it will be next spring before the calves are born, and they won’t go on feed until probably the following year. So when you buy a bull, that’s a long-term investment. Be aware that there are large swings in cost of gain, for example, so you really have to have a long-term game plan in mind and stick to that plan. If you switch back and forth based on market changes, you wind up with a breeding program that doesn’t make sense.”

How selecting genetics for cattle feed intake and efficiency can pay off

How can such a strategic look at your EPDs for cattle feed intake pay off for your herd? This is where Spangler said to “put pen to paper” on your herd’s specific objectives, then look at the specific feed-related EPDs to help develop genetics that will not only support your existing herd but grow it over time. By selecting heritable traits based on feeding and resulting carcass weights, for example, you have the opportunity to ultimately grow your herd and revenue potential.

“Can you decrease the mature size of your cows, thereby reducing your per-head feed needs and maybe running more cows as a result? If you can replace 1,500-pound cows with 1,200-pounders, you can run more of them with the same forage supplies. So, you’ll have more calves to sell,” Spangler said. “Cows have to be able to maintain themselves and have enough energy to reproduce based on whatever forage resources you have, and it’s cheaper to make genetic changes over time than it is to just buy more feed.”

If you’re interested in fine tuning your beef genetics strategy to optimize feed intake and efficiency, talk to your genetics provider. If you’d like to optimize your feed ration to improve your existing herd genetics, talk to your nutritionist or feed producer.


Information noted above was gathered from a third party who was advised his/her experience might be featured in marketing materials. This article contains third-party observations, advice or experiences that do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vermeer Corporation, its affiliates or its dealers. Individual results may vary based on care and operation of machine and crop and field conditions, which may adversely affect performance. Vermeer and the Vermeer logo are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries.© 2021 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved.